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A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.
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THE PHILODOXER for 05/07/2006
THX 1138: A Great Movie and a Terrible Book
Out of print for more than 30 years but easily available used, I recently picked up a copy of the novelization for George Lucas' first feature film THX 1138. 1138 is one of those works I think of as pure cinema: an awe-inspiring movie that's tailored to the specific storytelling strengths of the medium. This "cinematic purity" is precisely what piqued my interest in the novelization. How would renowned sci-fi writer Ben Bova capture lightning in a bottle?
Not very effectively, is the answer.
I don't usually write reviews of stories I don't like. Better just to find something that's actually good, recommend that, and cut the artist a break. But with 1138 hitting close to home in terms of work-related material and philosophical interest, both literary and personal, I decided to make an exception. First, a quick recap: THX 1138 is the story of an individual (the title character) living in a highly ordered society (not necessarily a bad thing) in the near future, where people's natural instincts are repressed by the government via drugs to preserve order, cleanliness, efficiency and all that good stuff. THX 1138 decides to escape the oppressive place even though it will likely mean his death.
The 1138 novelization suffers from two critical failures. One is the slavish duplication of the film's pseudo-language and logic. I'm talking about the purposely-absurd speeches and terminology (like, Please keep your trailing edge circuits from touching the floor. Do not present solid circuits for validation) mostly relegated to the movie background or spat at too fast a rate for the audience to immediately comprehend their vacuousness (essentially the same trick). In the film, this empty language adequately serves its purpose: the illusion of coherency to communicate both the rigidity and alienness of this future world. In other words, to establish mood. Catching and verifying the emptiness of these phrases is part of the pleasure of repeat viewings, reinforcing the validity of THX's decision to escape this repressive place. In the novel, however, this vacant language and the seemingly illogical actions of the characters are repeatedly provided with no depth, no motivation, or simply no logic. The book lovingly highlights the nonsense of 1138 and then does absolutely nothing with it. Barring the defense of malicious intent, one can only conclude that the author either doesn't understand the joke or is an amateur comedian.
The second charge is that, even if the novelization is a clarification of the substanceless aspects of THX 1138, an individual who puts his name on a work of art should recognize his responsibility, at least to himself, for spackling the gaps in logic in that story... if not to reflect well on him or herself, then at least to fulfill the more obvious obligation of making the story entertaining. Any translator worth his or her salt is ultimately obligated to aim to transcend the original work; this is ultimately the only means of creating a valuable companion to the original work. Matthew Stover accomplished it with his version of Revenge of the Sith, and Charlie Kaufman more traditionally but no less impressively pulled the trick in reverse with Adaptation. A storyteller can't ask for a greater test of his skill, for a translation will surely show precisely what you're made of.
One evocable though poor defense is that Bova was conceptually imitating the minimalist vision of 1138. This argument might be more convincing if Bova had at least taken the time to properly establish the setting in his novel. Minimalist though it too may be, a book must at least give a sense of place, even at the expense of accurately reflecting the source material. One might say that Bova couldn't know what the world of 1138 would look like, as the film wasn't yet finished when he was asked to author the novelization, but that doesn't justify a vague presentation of ideas or description (and I will not get into the author's awkward detailing of THX and his girlfriend getting it on). Admittedly, I've never read one of Bova's original novels (and though I'm actually less inclined to do so at this point, I'll probably pick one up just so I don't give the guy a raw deal). Yet it's clear from certain passages in 1138 -- particularly scenes involving a character not seen in the film, named Control -- that Bova is a competent writer. The question thus becomes, what hindered him from adapting this story right? We can postulate that Bova was so taken with 1138 that he was scared to "ruin" it by changing it or adding his own perspective. But if that's the case, the experiment, like that unimaginative remake of Psycho, is an absolute failure--mostly owed to an oversight of context. As a novel, 1138 is totally devoid of personality.
If you couldn't see it coming, the worst part of this novelization is predictably the ending. Whereas fans of the film will recall it ending with an ominously beautiful ambiguity as THX 1138 pursues his individuality out into a potentially radioactive-baked world and perhaps to his death, in the novelization the character emerges to a Paradise of lush green land and blue skies, were people live in freedom and harmony, and has a hearty laugh at all the fools who doubted him. The insecure revenge motif aside, it's the same heavy-handed ending that has betrayed countless intelligent stories. Here, Bova is likely not completely to blame, since the ending originally scripted by Lucas for filming was probably much closer to this. I'm only grateful that if this was indeed the case, Lucas' prescient editing savvy did not fail him.
Ultimately, THX 1138 is basically the epitome of novelizations: breezy and lazy. Nothing transcendent here, folks... move along, move along!
See you next week!
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